When Helen Muriel Morris entered the world on November 23, 1901, her hometown of Chicago was, along with the rest of America, on the cusp of a new century and a new world. No one in the Morris mansion, built on the sweat of immigrant laborers toiling in her family's meatpacking empire, knew that the little red-faced babe would go on to become an important part of this new world as a feminist, a socialist, a sensualist, an eminent psychoanalyst and a hero of the Austrian resistance against Hitler.
As a young girl, she was inspired by the rhetoric and charisma of feminist leader Inez Milholland, who spoke to a rapt Chicago audience that included Helen Muriel and her companion nurse-governess. The child soon organized a junior march of suffragists down the wide broad boulevard in front of the palatial structure that was her home. Milholland's rallying speech was her first exposure to the issue of women's rights.
It would not be her last. Not long after she left home at 16 to attend Wellesley College, she flung off her much-despised first name and became just Muriel, much as she rid herself of expensive clothing, jewelry and furs. Under the influence of the school's progressive women professors, Muriel became radicalized and by senior year led the campus in not only sports and academics but political activism. By the time she graduated in 1922, the young woman knew for certain that she would not live as a wealthy socialite. A socialist, she would take another path, although she as yet had no idea what that path would be.
Her years in Europe were financed by her family trust fund; although she renounced their values, she never gave up their money, and this allowed her to pursue a life of humanism and humanitarianism - and a lifestyle of numerous love affairs and sexual experimentation.
During her twenties and early thirties, she married twice, had a daughter and satisfied her sensual side with many love affairs, including one transcendent relationship with British poet Sir Stephen Spender. She also underwent psychoanalysis and, after meeting Freud and becoming friends with his daughter Anna, decided to become an analyst herself. She thought that was the best way to help others, although she recognized that it would take many years of study.
At the same time, in the early 1930s, she was drawn into the violent, dangerous world of Austrian politics, with its wide schism between the progressive Social Democrats and the regressive Christian Democrats; the tiny Austrian Nazi Party also played its part setting off bombs and beating people and generally trying to destabilize the situation.
Muriel joined an underground cell of socialists in 1934 and began aiding Jews (the Austrian government was anti-Semitic) and Social Democrats. Some just needed financial help, but most needed assistance in fleeing the country.
By this time, she had fallen in love with the man with whom she'd spend the rest of her life, socialist leader Joseph Buttinger. Muriel and Joe and others continued their resistance to the fascist government and then, when Hitler invaded Austria in March 1938, as Joe fled to avoid arrest, Muriel took over a leadership position.
For several months, on her own, she helped hundreds of Jews and antifascists to escape, using her cover as a wealthy American medical student as protection. Soon, convinced the Nazis were watching her, she left Austria and met Joe and her daughter in Paris. There Muriel and Joe continued their resistance work and then, when war broke out, she reluctantly agreed to marry him; she loved him, yes, but was opposed to institutional marriage. In this case, though, she had no choice as his life depended on being able to sail to America as the husband of a U.S. citizen.
Once in New York, Muriel continued aiding refugees fleeing Hitler, helped to found the International Rescue Committee, and continued her studies. She eventually became a psychoanalyst and, from 1940 on, lived with her husband and daughter in Manhattan and in a beloved old farmhouse in Pennington, N.J.
At Brookdale Farm, Muriel engaged in a private psychoanalytic practice at first, then ended that to work with children in the New Jersey public schools, eventually taking on a most troubled population, adolescents who had committed murder.
Her great wealth went into a foundation that supported women's rights, civil rights, birth control, and other progressive causes. Her friends included Albert Einstein, her neighbor in nearby Princeton, Anna Freud and other leading Freudian analysts, as well as artists and writers with whom she enjoyed an active social life.
Late in life, Muriel wrote several books, including a memoir of her time in the resistance, Code Name Mary. It was her attempt to set the record straight after noted playwright Lillian Hellman created her portrait of golden girl "Julia."
Muriel never assumed that she was Julia, although most of her friends did and, as it turned out, Muriel and Hellman had a connection: they shared the same lawyer. From 1939 on, when Muriel returned from Europe, he told Hellman tales of the beautiful and brave Muriel Gardiner. The creative Hellman used Muriel's life for three memorable characters: Sara Muller in the film "Watch on the Rhine" as well as Alice in An Unfinished Woman and Julia in Pentimento, both memoirs.
But Muriel Gardiner was not murdered by the Nazis as was Hellman's Julia. Nor did her daughter die in Europe, as did Julia's child. The real resistance hero lived a long and satisfying life, aiding refugees from other wars, including the Hungarian Revolution, working with troubled children and providing money to pay for college for countless young people.
When Muriel Gardiner finally died, after garnering medals and honors for her work resisting the Nazis, it was on her own terms. She died peacefully on February 6, 1983, not far from her beloved Brookdale Farm.
Causes sheila isenberg Supports
Women for Women International
Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE)
White Ribbon Alliance